Monday, July 30th, 2012

Managing the unexpected

by Jill Kirby

One of the important elements of using Mass Observation materials is ensuring the correspondents’ anonymity.  Although some are perfectly happy to be identifiable, many are not.  For that reason their contributions are listed under a unique identifier code consisting of a letter and number eg A883.

What we have found recently, however, is that many people, especially in the period we’re looking at, wrote their names at the top of each page, and although attempts have been made by the curators over the years to hide these (blacked out or tippexed), the quality of digitisation is such that in some cases, the name is still visible.   Additionally, as Dr Robinson has been working through the material she has found many examples where correspondents name or identify other people in their writings or include addresses or other personal, identifying material.

This isn’t something that we had thought about, so we’ve had to consider how to proceed.  A key concern is the integrity of the documents as historical artefacts, so anything we change needs to be evidently changed.  A further important concern is for the MO Archive’s reputation, particularly among current and potential correspondents.  They need to feel confident that their anonymity is protected.  On that basis, we are erring on the side of caution and will black out any identifying information relating to MO correspondents, and also relating to other people they mention, particularly family and neighbours.  Pragmatically this tends to mean surnames, as without first names the content starts to be a little odd. One of our post-graduate students is currently working through the digitised images putting them together into PDFs so as part of that process she is also checking for identifying information and blacking out content where appropriate.  It will add to the time it takes to get the material ready, but hopefully will keep us on the right ethical path both for the correspondents whose material we’re using, and for the MO Archive generally.